Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Monkey sighting stirs climate fears in Kenya

The discovery in Kenya of a new population of monkeys far from their normal habitat is a sign of how climate change may already be changing Africa's ecology, a leading conservationist said on Wednesday.

The white-bearded De Brazza's monkeys were found in the Great Rift Valley, a place they had never been spotted before, Richard Leakey, a prominent white Kenyan credited with ending the slaughter of the nation's elephants, told Reuters in Nairobi. "That is telling us a lot about the climate change scenarios we are looking at now," he said. "It puts climate change as the most critical consideration as we plan for the future." The monkeys had moved into an area of forest which had dried out as Kenya's climate had become more arid.

Africa is expected to be hit hardest by global warming blamed on carbon dioxide emissions from industry, transport and modern lifestyles in rich countries. It is also the continent least ready to cope with the droughts, floods and extreme weather predicted by scientists.

Leakey, whose paleontologist father, Louis, caused a radical rethink of human evolution with key fossil finds in east Africa, said African governments lacked funds to do their own climate change studies, and so had to rely on researchers who he said were typically more focused on temperate regions. But he said he had witnessed dramatic ecological changes in northern Kenya himself, including a 50-foot (15 meter) fall in the level of Lake Turkana over the last four decades. African leaders were not taking the climate threat seriously, he added.

Governments must be urged to save indigenous forests, plant trees, utilize rainwater and ban charcoal burning, he said. "Why do we think that we are somehow not going to have to deal with this issue?" he asked.

Western Canada's glaciers hit a 7,000-year low

Terra Daily: Tree stumps at the feet of Western Canadian glaciers are providing new insights into the accelerated rates at which the rivers of ice have been shrinking due to human-aided global warming. Geologist Johannes Koch of The College of Wooster found the deceptively fresh and intact tree stumps beside the retreating glaciers of Garibaldi Provincial Park, about 40 miles (60 km) north of Vancouver, British Columbia. What he wanted to know was how long ago the glaciers made their first forays into a long-lost forest to kill the trees and bury them under ice.

To find out, Koch radiocarbon-dated wood from the stumps to see how long they have been in cold storage. The result was a surprising 7000 years. "The stumps were in very good condition sometimes with bark preserved," said Koch, who conducted the work as part of his doctoral thesis at Simon Fraser University in Burnaby, British Columbia. Koch will present his results on Wednesday, 31 October 2007, at the Geological Society of America Annual Meeting in Denver.

The pristine condition of the wood, he said, can best be explained by the stumps having spent all of the last seven millennia under tens to hundreds of meters of ice. All stumps were still rooted to their original soil and location. "Thus they really indicate when the glaciers overrode them, and their kill date gives the age of the glacier advance," Koch explained. They also give us a span of time during which the glaciers have always been larger than they were 7000 years ago - until the recently warming climate released the stumps from their icy tombs.

Koch compared the kill dates of the trees in the southern and northern Coast Mountains of British Columbia and those in the mid- and southern Rocky Mountains in Canada to similar records from the Yukon Territory, the European Alps, New Zealand and South America. He also looked at the age of Oetzi, the prehistoric mummified alpine "Iceman" found at Niederjoch Glacier, and similarly well-preserved wood from glaciers and snowfields in Scandinavia.

The radiocarbon dates seem to be the same around the world, according to Koch. It's important to note that there have been many advances and retreats of these glaciers over the past 7000 years, but no retreats that have pushed them back so far upstream as to expose these trees. The age of the tree stumps gives new emphasis to the well-documented "before" and "after" photographs of retreating glaciers during the 20th century.

"It seems like an unprecedented change in a short amount of time," Koch said. "From this work and many other studies looking at forcings of the climate system, one has to turn away from natural ones alone to explain this dramatic change of the past 150 years."

Birth defects soar in polluted China

Terra Daily, via Agence France-Presse: Birth defects in heavily polluted China have increased by nearly 40 percent since 2001, with a deformed baby born every 30 seconds, state media reported on Tuesday. The rate of defects appeared to increase near the country's countless coal mines, which produce the bulk of China's energy but are also responsible for serious air and water pollution, the China Daily newspaper said, quoting government officials.

Birth defects nationwide have increased from 104.9 per 10,000 births in 2001 to 145.5 last year, it said, citing a report by the National Population and Family Planning Commission. They affect about one million of the 20 million babies born every year, with about 300,000 babies suffering from "visible deformities."

"A baby with birth defects is born every 30 seconds in China and the situation has worsened year by year," said Jiang Fan, deputy head of the commission and author of the report. About 30-40 percent of the deformed children born each year die shortly after birth.

There is a correlation between birth defects and proximity to environmentally degraded areas, said An Huanxiao, head of family planning in the heavily polluted northern province of Shanxi, source of much of the nation's coal. Shanxi tops the nation in birth defects, Xinhua said. A correlation can also be drawn with parents' poverty and low education, An was quoted as saying.

China suffers from serious pollution, the price of its stunning economic rise, with air quality in major cities regularly exceeding danger levels and millions of people lacking access to clean water.

Lake Superior called 'early victim of climate change'

Minneapolis Star-Tribune: Like ice sheets melting in the Arctic, Lake Superior has begun showing some of the world's most tangible evidence of global warming, according to scientists gathered in Duluth this week. The lake's average winter ice cover is 50 percent smaller than it was 100 years ago, a study found. Since 1980, the water on average in summer has warmed almost 2 degrees Fahrenheit per decade, which is twice as fast as the air has warmed. During that time, wind speeds in the middle of the giant lake also have risen steadily.

"In many ways, you in the Lake Superior basin are the canary in the mine," said David Phillips, senior climatologist at Environment Canada. "Lake Superior is really one of the early victims of climate change."

Worldwide, warmer weather and stronger storms could affect everything from the survival of certain plants and animals to transportation to sewage treatment overflows. But the 400 or so scientists at the "Making a Great Lake Superior Conference" said there's still time to minimize the long-term environmental and economic damage, and to adapt to shorter-term changes that can't be averted.

Individuals, corporations and governments must "mainstream climate change" into their thoughts, plans and projects, said Joel Scheraga of the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency's Global Change Research Program. Failure to plan could result in more disasters such as the damage done to New Orleans by Hurricane Katrina, he said.

…People should be concerned about such trends, but they shouldn't panic or lose hope, said Scheraga, the EPA program director. Knowing that storms may be stronger is already prompting cities to design sewer systems to handle larger overflows and treat potentially polluted runoff, he said. Similarly, engineers in extreme northern reaches are adjusting building foundation standards and building practices to compensate for dwindling permafrost.

As people work to reduce emissions that are driving the trends, they must also continue to adapt to them because greenhouse gases already in the atmosphere will remain there for a long time, the scientists said…

Protecting health from climate change

Merinews (India): Climate change is a significant and fastest emerging threat to public health. There is growing evidence that global climate changes will affect the health and well being of human beings. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change in its report has reconfirmed that humans are getting negatively affected with the changes in global climate. Climate variability and change has and will cause further death and disease through natural disasters, such as heat waves, floods and droughts. In addition to these disasters, many diseases are highly sensitive to changing temperatures and precipitation. These include common vector borne diseases like malaria and dengue. It also adds up to the global burden of disease.

Probably seeing this matter of urgency World Health Organisation (WHO) has announced that it will have – ‘Protecting Health from Climate Change’ as the theme for the World Health Day in 2008 . World Health Day takes place on 7 April annually and its purpose is to raise awareness of key global public health challenges. World Health Day 2008 will mark the 60th anniversary of WHO.

It is a step forward to advocate and push for allocating more resources for combating climate this. As per WHO media release, health and well being of populations must become the defining measure of the impact of climate change and our efforts to address it effectively. Climate change is gradually becoming a central part of planning future projects and top on the international agenda and it is becoming clearer that sustainable development leads to healthy environments and enhanced public health.

There is an immediate need is to strengthen surveillance and control of infectious diseases, safer use of diminishing water supplies, and take action on health emergencies. But more focus as always should be on prevention as the old saying goes ‘Prevention is better than cure’.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Increasing impact of disaster such as wildfires shows urgent need for better urban planning

ReliefWeb: After the fires in southern California (USA) the International Strategy for Disaster Reduction secretariat – the UN agency dealing with disaster reduction – is highlighting the importance of urban planning and building regulations to reduce our vulnerability to all disasters. Wildfires are significant hazards that affect millions of people every year and cause huge losses. The last fires in Greece killed 70 people and caused enormous destruction. The damage of the current Californian fires destroyed more than 2000 houses and will remain as one of the costliest fires in the USA.

“How and where we build our houses are crucial decisions that can reduce or increase our vulnerability to disasters. This is true whether for fires, floods, landslides, volcanic eruptions or earthquakes. When cities are vulnerable to disaster, millions of people are at risk in them every day. Increased urbanization combined with climate change is creating new stresses on cities – and this intensified urban vulnerability needs to be systematically addressed, if we are to better protect the world’s rapidly growing urban population and avoid more tragedies,” says Salvano Briceño, Director of the ISDR secretariat.

The Hyogo Framework for Action adopted by 168 governments in January 2005 shortly after the 26 December 2004 tsunami lists practical measures that can reduce hazard risk and vulnerability for cities. Better urban planning and land use planning, improved building codes, and using disaster resistant materials are some ways we can better protect our houses and neighborhoods. Residential areas located in high risk zones bordering forests, grasslands, or bushlands can be protected by preventive measures such as the construction of buffer zones, clearing of combustible materials and building houses using fire-resistant materials.

The Nobel Peace Prize-winning Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change predicted in its last report that climate change will increase the frequency and severity of extreme weather events, including droughts and heat waves. This will increase fire risks and make more communities vulnerable to fires. The Global Wildland Fire Network, in which 13 regions of the world are organized, is addressing the increasing fire threats by enhancing international cooperative and collective efforts in fire disaster reduction. The global network is an outreach programme of the ISDR and facilitated by the Global Fire Monitoring Center (GFMC) based in Freiburg, Germany.

Climate change and uncertainty go hand-in-hand

Climate Ark, via Innovations Report: Two University of Washington scientists believe the uncertainty remains so high because the climate system itself is very sensitive to a variety of factors, such as increased greenhouse gases or a higher concentration of atmospheric particles that reflect sunlight back into space. In essence, the scientists found that the more likely it is that conditions will cause climate to warm, the more uncertainty exists about how much warming there will be.

"Uncertainty and sensitivity have to go hand in hand. They're inextricable," said Gerard Roe, a UW associate professor of Earth and space sciences. "We're used to systems in which reducing the uncertainty in the physics means reducing the uncertainty in the response by about the same proportion. But that's not how climate change works."

Roe and Marcia Baker, a UW professor emeritus of Earth and space sciences and of atmospheric sciences, have devised and tested a theory they believe can help climate modelers and observers understand the range of probabilities from various factors, or feedbacks, involved in climate change. The theory is contained in a paper published in the Oct. 26 edition of Science.

In political polling, as the same questions are asked of more and more people the uncertainty, expressed as margin of error, declines substantially and the poll becomes a clearer snapshot of public opinion at that time. But it turns out that with climate, additional research does not substantially reduce the uncertainty.

The equation devised by Roe and Baker helps modelers understand built-in uncertainties so that the researchers can get meaningful results after running a climate model just a few times, rather than having to run it several thousand times and adjust various climate factors each time. "It's a yardstick against which one can test climate models," Roe said…

Malaria moves in behind the loggers

Guardian: …In Peru, malaria was almost eradicated 40 years ago, but this year 64,000 cases have been registered in the country, half in the Amazon region. It is thought there are many more unregistered cases deep within the massive and humid rainforest, where health authorities find it almost impossible to gain access.

"Malaria is present. There have been 32,000 cases this year in this area alone - that says malaria is very much present," said Hugo Rodríguez, a doctor at the Andean Health Organisation, which is fighting malaria in border areas of Peru, Ecuador, Colombia and Venezuela.

His organisation distributes mosquito nets to some villagers, spreading the message through the area that the illness is dangerous and - where they can identify the cases - helping in post-infection treatment. "Now we are not talking about eradicating malaria any more, as that is impossible and unsustainable; we are doing our best to try and control it," he added.

Climate change and deforestation are behind the return of malaria in the Peruvian Amazon. Off-season rain is altering the pattern of mosquito development, leaving puddles containing the lethal larvae in areas where malaria had been nonexistent. "The actual malaria problem of the Peruvian Amazon is caused by constant climate changes," said biologist Carlos Pacheco, head of the mosquito control unit in Iquitos, the regional capital south of Mazán.

And deforestation is having a similar effect, forcing the mosquito to move to new areas and spreading the disease to places where people are not aware of the disease, where villagers lack the means to get hold of mosquito nets and preventive medicines, and where health authorities have no presence.

…Two scientific reports last year linked malaria with deforestation. Peruvian researchers found that frontier areas cleared of trees for logging, settlements, roads, farming or mining were far more likely to harbour malaria-carrying mosquitoes. In one Peruvian study, researchers said the biting rate of mosquitoes in deforested areas was nearly 300 times greater than in virgin forests. Increases in human population density had no impact on biting rates….

The Achilles heel of nuclear power

Joseph Romm in his great blog, Climate Progress: No, I don’t mean cost, safety, waste, or proliferation — though those are all serious problems. I mean the Achilles heel of nuclear power in the context of climate change: water. Climate change means water shortages in many places and hotter water everywhere. Both are big problems for nukes.

… nuclear power is the most water-hungry of all energy sources, with a single reactor consuming 35-65 million litres of water each day.

The Australians, stuck in a once-in-a-1000-years drought, understandably worry about this a lot:

Operating a 2,400 Watt fan heater for one hour consumes 0.01 litres of water if wind is the energy source, 0.26 litres if solar is the energy source, 4.5 litres if coal is the energy source, or 5.5 litres if nuclear power is the energy source.

Hotter water is another serious worry: Nuclear power “requires great amounts of cool water to keep reactors operating at safe temperatures. That is worrying if the rivers and reservoirs which many power plants rely on for water are hot or depleted because of steadily rising air temperatures,” noted the International Herald Tribune earlier this year.

During the extreme heat of 2003 in France, 17 nuclear reactors operated at reduced capacity or were turned off.

Patrice Lambert de Diesbach, an energy analyst at CM-CIC Securities in Paris, said hot summers were the problem. “We are up against the maximum amount of hot water that can be released into rivers,” Diesbach said. “Unfortunately the situation is only going to get worse.”

Indeed, if we stay on our current emissions trajectory, more than half of European summers will be hotter than 2003 within the next four decades, according to a 2004 study in Nature by British scientists from Oxford University and the Hadley Centre for Climate Prediction and Research. By the end of the century, “2003 would be classed as an anomalously cold summer relative to the new climate,” the study notes.

I think that nuclear power could realistically provide no more than one “wedge” of the 10 or more wedge-sized climate solutions we need to avoid climate catastrophe. And if we don’t avoid catastrophe, nuclear may find itself fizzling out as an energy strategy.

Monday, October 29, 2007

Children are at increased risk from effects of global climate change

Toronto Daily News: There is broad scientific consensus that the earth’s climate is warming, the process is accelerating, and that human activities are very likely the main cause. Children are often most vulnerable to adverse health effects from environmental hazards because they are not fully developed physically and psychologically.

A new American Academy of Pediatrics (AAP) technical report and policy statement, “Global Climate Change and Children’s Health,” outlines the specific ways global climate change impacts child health, and calls on pediatricians to understand the threats to children, anticipate the impact on children’s health, and advocate for strategies that will lessen the effects.

Direct health impacts from global warming include injury and death from more frequent extreme weather events, such as hurricanes and tornados. For children, this can mean post-traumatic stress, loss of caregivers, disrupted education and displacement. Increased climate-sensitive infectious diseases, air pollution-related illness, and heat-related illness and fatalities also are expected.

As the climate changes, the earth’s geography also will change, leading to a host of health risks for kids. Disruptions in the availability of food and water and the displacement of coastal populations can cause malnutrition, vitamin deficiencies and waterborne illness, the statement said.

“This is a call for us to look at how climate change may be impacted by what we do as an organization, what we do in our personal business and what we do in our home life,” said Helen J. Binns, MD, MPH, FAAP, chair of the AAP Committee on Environmental Health.

The statement encourages pediatricians to be role models for minimizing greenhouse gas emissions by making small changes such as switching to compact fluorescent light bulbs, reducing thermostat settings in the winter and increasing settings in the summer, and using cars less. Pediatricians should make sure their patients understand the air quality index, pollen counts and UV measures used in most metropolitan areas. These conversations can be opportunities to introduce the broader issue of climate change and the importance of reducing carbon dioxide emissions.

The statement also advises pediatricians to advocate and support policies that strengthen public transportation, expand green spaces and reward energy efficiency. It’s also crucial that children are given specific attention in emergency and disaster response planning.

Spain to demolish illegal coastal homes: report

Reuters: Spain plans to demolish illegally built homes and hotels along an eighth of its coastline to halt rapid destruction of its Mediterranean and Canary Island beaches, the El Pais newspaper reported on Monday. The 5-billion-euro ($7-billion) plan aims to reclaim 482 miles of coastline and put an end to illegal urban development that threatens Spain's tourism industry, one of the country's biggest sources of foreign cash, El Pais reported.

The Socialist government will present the plan to regional authorities on Wednesday and promote it as a means to attract wealthy tourists who seek natural beauty rather than concrete resorts, the newspaper said. "Without the agreement of regional governments and town halls it will not be possible to implement the plan," said Antonio Serrano, head of land and biodiversity at Spain's Environment Ministry, in comments published in El Pais.

Environmentalists blame corruption and incompetence among local councils for the destruction of Spain's coastline which is disappearing under concrete at a rate of three soccer pitches a day, according to Greenpeace. Government officials were not immediately available to comment on the report.

Under the environment ministry plan, local authorities would negotiate compensation with owners of houses and hotels built illegally on beaches and 100 metres of public land behind them, El Pais said. Properties would be expropriated if settlements were not reached, the newspaper said.

The European Parliament has condemned the impact of tourist development on the Mediterranean environment and traditional communities, especially in the Valencia region. Even Spain's tourist bosses say the industry faces competition from cheaper, less spoiled destinations. While low-cost flights have kept arrivals high, the length of stays and the amount tourists spend in each visit has fallen. About 1,000 kms of Spain's 8,000 kms of coastline has been built upon, El Pais reported.

U.S. survey ties biofuels to high food costs, hunger

Reuters: Six in 10 Americans believe the use of corn to make ethanol has raised food prices and caused more people to go hungry, the latest evidence of a growing global backlash against alternative "green" fuels. The Hormel Hunger Survey released on Monday also showed 53 percent of Americans polled believe government subsidies for ethanol production will help reduce U.S. dependence on foreign oil, but nearly as many -- 47 percent -- oppose the subsidies because they increase food prices.

Last week Jean Ziegler, the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the right to food, called for a five-year moratorium on biofuels, saying it was a "crime against humanity" to convert food crops to fuel at a time when there are more than 850 million hungry people in the world.

The findings were based on an Internet survey of 807 Americans conducted September 25-30 in conjunction with America's Second Harvest, a food bank network. Hormel Foods, a Minnesota-based meat processor, sees the direct effects of corn price rises, since corn is the main U.S. livestock feed.

U.S. corn prices are up about 50 percent in the last two years despite record harvests due to booming ethanol demand. "We all want the United States to be energy-independent, or at least closer to it," Hormel Foods Chairman and Chief Executive Jeffrey Ettinger told the Ohio Hunger Summit in Cincinnati. "But is increasing ethanol production really a good thing if in the process we also increase the financial burden on American families?"

Support for ethanol production has become a staple in politics in recent years, particularly during campaign swings through corn-dependent Iowa, which kicks off the voting season in the presidential process in January. The powerful U.S. farm lobby, along with giant biofuels processors like Archer Daniels Midland, have been champions of ethanol and "biodiesel" made from vegetable oils.

Aggressive support including tax credits and import tariffs has driven a boom in biofuels production in the United States and Europe but also helped drive prices for corn, rapeseed, soybeans and soybean oil higher.

Democratic presidential hopeful Sen. Barack Obama and Iowa Democratic Sen. Tom Harkin unveiled a stand-alone bill in October to require 18 billion gallons of renewable fuels to be blended with U.S. gasoline supply by 2016. An energy bill the Senate passed in June would mandate a four-fold increase in ethanol use in motor gasoline, to 36 billion gallons by 2022.

U.S. ethanol plants are forecast to produce about 6.5 billion gallons in 2007, according to the Renewable Fuels Association. The hunger survey found 64 percent of Americans believe U.S. hunger has worsened in the last year, with 13 percent saying they or someone in their family had gone to bed hungry in the past month.

Sixty percent said they have had to cut back on the quality or quantity of food they buy because of higher prices, while 29 percent said they expected to ask for food from a food bank or other charitable organization in the future.

Human-generated ozone will damage crops, reduce production

Science Daily: A novel MIT study concludes that increasing levels of ozone due to the growing use of fossil fuels will damage global vegetation, resulting in serious costs to the world's economy. The analysis, reported in the November issue of Energy Policy, focused on how three environmental changes (increases in temperature, carbon dioxide and ozone) associated with human activity will affect crops, pastures and forests.

The research shows that increases in temperature and in carbon dioxide may actually benefit vegetation, especially in northern temperate regions. However, those benefits may be more than offset by the detrimental effects of increases in ozone, notably on crops. Ozone is a form of oxygen that is an atmospheric pollutant at ground level.

The economic cost of the damage will be moderated by changes in land use and by agricultural trade, with some regions more able to adapt than others. But the overall economic consequences will be considerable. According to the analysis, if nothing is done, by 2100 the global value of crop production will fall by 10 to 12 percent.

"Even assuming that best-practice technology for controlling ozone is adopted worldwide, we see rapidly rising ozone concentrations in the coming decades," said John M. Reilly, associate director of the MIT Joint Program on the Science and Policy of Global Change. "That result is both surprising and worrisome."…

DMCii satellite imaging helps dramatically reduce deforestation of Amazon Basin

Terra Daily: The Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) has placed a contract for a third year with DMC International Imaging Ltd., (DMCii) to acquire high-resolution satellite images of the entire 5 million square kilometres of the Amazon rainforest. Since 2004 INPE's programme to monitor deforestation has dramatically reduced the rate of logging from 27,000 per year to about 10,000 in 2007.

In order to rapidly identify areas of cover change, DMCii is contracted to provide three repeat coverages in 2007 (June-July, July-August, September-October). In 2005, and again in 2006, DMC imaged the whole Amazon Basin in 6 weeks to provide Brazil with vital information to help monitor deforestation and combat illegal logging.

DMC imagery is provided by the five-satellite international Disaster Monitoring Constellation (DMC). The DMC small satellites, built by Surrey Satellite Technology Ltd (SSTL), use wide area cameras to capture the high-resolution images. The latest satellite, built for China, was launched into the DMC on 27 October 2005. Two new DMC satellites will be launched in 2008 and a third in 2009.

Speaking at the Royal Society in London, 25th October, Dr. Gilberto Camara, Director General of INPE said, "The DMC data is an important affordable contribution to our assessment of deforestation of the Amazon rainforest. "The constellation is able to rapidly acquire and deliver high quality imagery so that we have up-to-date information to focus our efforts. It is our intention to develop a long term relationship with DMC"

…The Brazilian National Institute for Space Research (INPE) INPE's mission is to make it possible for Brazilian society to benefit from new developments in space science and technology, mainly focusing on:

1. Increasing Brazil's autonomy in a number of strategic areas;

2. Providing the means for Brazilian industry to participate and become competitive in the space area;

3. Encouraging the development and dissemination of space technology;

Deforestation rates in tropical Africa, Southeast Asia, and South America have remained constant or have increased over the past two decades, altering global carbon emissions and climate while elevating the need for frequent and accurate assessment of forest loss. In the Brazilian Amazon alone, where the growth of cattle ranching and cropland agriculture are the primary causes of forest clearing, about 20,000 square kilometres of forest are clear-cut and burned each year….

Sunday, October 28, 2007

Opportunism burns at both ends

For years, land use advocates have urged a halt to development in potential fire zones, along with regular small burns to lower the fuel load.

Developers and others have ardently opposed these measures. Until now. Suddenly, the pro-development crowd is braying that better land use is the key to stopping the fires – anything rather than allow a role to climate change.

For a judicious statement of the issue, see this posting at Andrew Revkin's DotEarth, over at the New York Times.

Nuclear power and water scarcity: an Australian point of view

Science Alert (Australia and New Zealand): The connections between water scarcity, power generation and the federal government's promotion of nuclear power are worth reflecting on in National Water Week, held from October 21-27. Some problems associated with nuclear power are much discussed – such as its connection to the proliferation of weapons of mass destruction. Less well known is the fact that nuclear power is the most water-hungry of all energy sources, with a single reactor consuming 35-65 million litres of water each day.

Water scarcity is already a serious problem for Australia's power-generation industry, largely because of our heavy reliance on water-guzzling coal-fired plants…Introducing nuclear power would exacerbate those problems. A December 2006 report by the Commonwealth Department of Parliamentary Services notes that the water requirements for a nuclear power station are 20-83 per cent higher than for other power stations. Moreover, those calculations do not include water consumption by uranium mines. The Roxby Downs mine in South Australia uses 35 million litres of water each day, with plans to increase this to 150 million litres each day. Mine operator BHP Billiton does not pay one cent for this water despite recording a record $17 billion profit in 2006-07.

Water outflows from nuclear power plants can damage the local environment…

Nuclear reactors in numerous European countries have been periodically taken off-line or operated at reduced output in recent years because of water shortages driven by climate change, drought and heat waves. Nuclear utilities have also sought and secured exemptions from operating conditions in order to discharge overheated water.

The water consumption of renewable energy sources and energy efficiency and conservation measures is negligible compared to nuclear or coal. Operating a 2,400 Watt fan heater for one hour consumes 0.01 litres of water if wind is the energy source, 0.26 litres if solar is the energy source, 4.5 litres if coal is the energy source, or 5.5 litres if nuclear power is the energy source.

Tim Flannery, the 2007 Australian of the Year, notes that hastening the uptake of renewable energy sources such as wind, solar, and geothermal 'hot rocks' will help ease the water crisis as well as reducing greenhouse gas emissions - a win-win outcome.

Globally, there is another compelling reason to ensure that decisions on water allocation - including its use in energy production - are made wisely and equitably. Limited access to water is already contributing to armed conflicts ('water wars') in a number of places around the globe. UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon recently noted that shortages of food and water in sub-Saharan Africa were a precursor to the current tragic violence in Darfur. The problem goes "far beyond Darfur", he warned, as many other places are now suffering water shortages.

Australia can ill-afford to replace one thirsty industry, coal, with an even thirstier one, nuclear power.

Cooler weather helps contain California fires

Reuters: Cooler, calmer weather helped firefighters gain the upper hand over seven remaining wildfires in Southern California on Sunday, although state officials said blazes still threatened 12,000 homes. A fire in Orange County's Silverado Canyon covering 27,900 acres was about 50 percent contained, up from 40 percent late on Saturday, according to Fire Captain Phil Rawlings.

"The situation is looking very good as far as no additional acreage burning," Rawlings said in a phone interview. "We are doing very good with the weather cooperating with us."Rawlings said, however, the weather was not expected to be as cool as it was on Saturday, when firefighters kept the blaze from crossing a ridge and storming toward homes in a neighboring county.

Earlier in the week, hot, dry winds fueled as many as 24 separate wildfires, ravaging more than 500,000 acres (202,400 hectares) and destroying 2,300 structures, according to the California Office of Emergency Services. The fires have also been responsible for 12 deaths and 78 injuries.

The largest fire, in San Diego County, has burned more than 300 square miles and was at least 60 percent contained as of Saturday.

Climate researcher: Israel’s coast will flood (Israel): “Israel will face a severe water shortage by 2040,” says Dr. Wolfgang Seiler. He will present this claim at a lecture at the International Water Technologies and Environmental Control Exhibition and Conference - Watec 2007 in Tel Aviv this week. Seiler will be a guest of Netafim Ltd., one of the conference sponsors. He is a former director of Germany’s Institute of Meteorology and Climate Research, and serves on several international climate research committees, including a joint committee of Tel Aviv University and Germany’s Ministry of Science and Technology.

Seiler says that the coming water shortage will be the result of global warming. He adds that melting glaciers will raise the sea level by at least 50 centimeters. This will cause flooding of coastal cities, including in Israel, affecting millions of people. He adds that global warming will change atmospheric cycles, which will change the global precipitation regime. This will greatly affect agriculture, nature, and the condition of the world’s forests. Deliveries of clean drinking water to populations in many parts of the world, especially coastal regions, will suffer.

Seiler says that one of the most important consequences of climate change, which has not yet attracted much attention, is the increasing frequency of extreme meteorological phenomena, such as floods, drought, storms, and avalanches. These events will undoubtedly affect the lives of millions of people.

EU levies for imports from non-Kyoto countries?

EU Observer: France has thrown its support behind a European Commission idea to tax environment polluters and also urged Brussels to consider EU levies for imports from non-Kyoto countries, such as the US and Australia.

"We need to profoundly revise all of our taxes... to tax pollution more, including fossil fuels, and to tax labour less," French president Nicolas Sarkozy told an environment forum representing government, industry and the green lobby on Thursday (25 October), according to AFP agency. His speech came at the final session of the expert platform which had debated climate change issues for the past four months.

Mr Sarkozy argued that Europe should "examine the option of taxing products imported from countries that do not respect the Kyoto Protocol." He urged European Commission president Jose Manuel Barroso, present at the speakers' podium, to discuss in the next six months the implications of "unfair competition" by firms outside the EU which do not have to abide by strict European standards on CO2 emissions…

Saturday, October 27, 2007

What turns fires into disasters? Politics and planning

Treehugger: Steve Erie is director of the Urban Studies and Planning Programming at the University of California San Diego. He is writing a book: Paradise Plundered, explaining how the hills around San Diego got developed.

Erie says that "Developers own most of the city councils. In Poway, in Escondido, what they do is put homeowners in harm's way. They're able to control zoning processes, and they're frequently behind initiatives that say no new taxes, no new fire services. It's insanity." "Politicians here have never met a developer they didn't like. It's a company town and it is largely run by the building industry and local politicians do their bidding." Meanwhile, the builders don't build any more fire protection than they have to because people aren't willing to pay for it. ::The Star


Around Los Angeles, researchers have found that about two-thirds of new building in Southern California over the past decade was on land susceptible to wildfires, said Mike Davis, a historian at the University of California at Irvine and author of a social history of Los Angeles.

"It gives you some parameters for understanding the current situation," Davis said. "Another way to look at it is you simply drive out the San Gorgonio Pass, where the winds blow over 50 mph over a hundred days a year and you have new houses standing next to 50-year-old chaparral. "You might as well be building next to leaking gasoline cans." ::Washington Post

John Gress - Reuters

Back in San Diego, former fire chief Jeff Bowman is nervous. According to the LA Times, Bowman works as a consultant to fire departments and municipalities. With 16 years as chief in Anaheim and four in San Diego before quitting over staffing and resource issues, he's got strong opinions on San Diego's long, proud culture of skimping on services to keep taxes low.

Although the city of San Diego has a fire department, the county doesn't, leaving many suburban and rural areas to rely on volunteer departments. The city has but one firefighting helicopter and just 975 firefighters for 330 square miles and 1.3 million residents. Compare that, he says, with San Francisco, which has 1,600 firefighters for 60 square miles and 850,000 people.

"San Diego practices the biggest don't-tax-me campaign I've seen," says Bowman, a proud, lifelong Republican. Fine, he says, don't raise taxes. But reevaluate how money is spent and redistribute it to public safety. ::LA Times

New Orleans storm readiness shortfalls kept secret

New Orleans Times-Picayune: The state of Louisiana and the Bush administration are refusing to disclose analyses that would let the public know where gaps exist in the government's hurricane preparation and response plans, including evacuation, medical services and shelters.

Citing national security concerns, the Federal Emergency Management Agency has refused to turn over "gap analyses" conducted on 18 coastal states, from Maine to Texas, that are susceptible to hurricanes. FEMA officials say that because the reviews discuss "critical infrastructure," they are not available to the public under the federal Freedom of Information Act.

Louisiana emergency preparedness officials first referred questions to FEMA and then declined to provide further information about ongoing problems in planning for hurricanes."This is a FEMA project," said Mark Smith, spokesman for the Louisiana Governor's Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Response.

The Times-Picayune first asked for the gap analyses in June after FEMA Director David Paulison announced at the start of the 2007 hurricane season that the state-by-state reviews were part of the agency's new approach to ensuring disaster readiness.

After the much-maligned federal, state and local responses to Hurricane Katrina in 2005, FEMA decided to review "core readiness capabilities" in six major areas: evacuation, medical services, debris removal, commodities, sheltering and fuel. Modeled after an assessment developed by New York after the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, FEMA asked coastal states to identify gaps in their preparedness and to ask the federal government for help in advance.

Paulison has mentioned the "Gap Analysis Initiative" at news conferences and in congressional testimony since the process was launched in March. But his agency has refused to provide specifics. "FEMA agreed with the states not to release this data due to the potential release of critical infrastructure data," James McIntyre, a spokesman for the agency, said. "In addition, we find the data to be of a sensitive nature that could be misused if widely available."…

Three-way drought dispute: Georgia, Florida, Alabama

Palm Beach Post: After 17 years, a tri-state water war may ultimately come down to this: Should Florida's endangered mussels and fishing industry be protected or should Georgia residents have water to drink? Georgia Gov. Sonny Perdue's recent pleas for emergency drought relief have brought a long-simmering battle involving Florida, Alabama and Georgia to a boil.

Coping with a record-setting drought and facing a potential water shortage, Georgia officials have demanded that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers stop releasing so much water from its reservoirs to its neighbors downstream - and have asked President Bush for help.

But Florida and Alabama officials have made their own presidential plea: Don't give in to Georgia's demands. "We can all see the effects the drought is taking on our region," Florida Gov. Charlie Crist wrote to Bush this week. "We are unwilling to allow the unrealistic demands of one region to further compromise the downstream communities."

The tri-state water war has been playing out since the late 1980s. It has prompted a half-dozen federal lawsuits and plenty of finger-pointing, including charges that one state is favored over another. The dispute has outlasted three Florida governors...

…Crist said the Panhandle already is facing "economic peril" because of "insufficient water flows." "Further reductions would only hasten the decline of this important component of Florida's economy," Crist wrote. "The resulting loss of jobs will devastate a people who have relied on this industry for generations."…

Recent study shows Rio Grande water is in danger

El Defensor Chieftain (New Mexico): A recent study presented at a press conference in Albuquerque shows that if there aren't changes made, by 2080, the Rio Grande Valley will have much less water than the area will need. The finding of a study done by University of New Mexico professor Julie Coonrod and New Mexico State University assistant professor Brian Hurd were released at a news conference in Albuquerque on Oct. 23. This study found that residents and agriculture in the Rio Grande Valley would suffer from a significant loss of water. Riverside ecosystems are also likely to suffer.

…The researchers used models of Earth's climate over the next century done for the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, an international body of scientists studying the problem. "Hopefully the study will result in water managers looking at new methods of conservation and new sources of water like desalination plants," said Coonrod.

Data from studies of tree rings, for example, shows cycles of drought and flood as well as periods of cooling and warming. If these cycles continue into the future, with or without human intervention, the valley is destined for an overall warming trend. Water shortages in New Mexico and throughout the arid southwest are likely to experience disruptions in water supplies in the future climate changes. Even if future climate changes produce more rainfall, the study shows that evaporation on the river will still be a problem.

The study uses three climate change scenarios across two future time periods. The researchers used the possibilities of more rain, less rain or about the same amount of rain with the increased temperatures in 2030 and in 2080. In each case, the Rio Grande shrank because temperatures caused the water to evaporate more. Studies showed that by 2080, the driest predictions showed a 29 percent drop. The best or wettest case showed a drop of only 8 percent.

…"I think most New Mexican's don't want the nature of the valley to change," Coonrod said. "Plans need to be started now to keep that from happening." The report estimates total annual economic losses of about $300 million. In the worst case, if the state does into a drought as the temperatures increase, both economic and non-economic losses are likely to be significantly higher.

…Hurd suggested a very possible future of significantly less water and at the same time significantly more people. The research findings suggest that New Mexico's social, economic, and environmental systems are highly vulnerable to changes and disruptions to water supplies potentially caused by climate change. The need is highlighted for water users, communities, organizations, and institutions in New Mexico at every level and in every sector to begin considering possible adaptive strategies for making better use of their water resources.

The complete study can be found on the Internet at

Climate Progress on soaring carbon concentrations

Climate Progress: The important new study, “Contributions to accelerating atmospheric CO2 growth from economic activity, carbon intensity, and efficiency of natural sinks,” that we blogged on earlier is now available online (tip o’ the hat to John M). You can get the abstract here and download the full study here.

bas_thumb1.jpgWhat carbon sinks are saturating? A recent and persistent increase in winds (photo, British Antarctic Survey) “over the Southern Ocean, caused by greenhouse gases and ozone depletion, has led to a release of stored CO2 into the atmosphere and is preventing further absorption of the greenhouse gas”(original Science article here).

Let me quote one key, sobering paragraph from the new study:

Growth in Atmospheric CO2. Global average atmospheric CO2 rose from 280 ppm at the start of the industrial revolution (circa 1750) to 381 ppm in 2006. The present concentration is the highest during the last 650,000 years and probably during the last 20 million years. The growth rate of global average atmospheric CO2 for 2000–2006 was 1.93 ppm. This rate is the highest since the beginning of continuous monitoring in 1959 and is a significant increase over growth rates in earlier decades: the average growth rates for the 1980s and the 1990s were 1.58 and 1.49 ppm respectively.

What is particularly novel about this Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences paper is that the authors provide the first quantitative explanation I have seen for this accelerated growth rate:

The growth rate of atmospheric CO2 depends on three classes of factors: global economic activity (generated from the use of fossil fuels and land-use change), the carbon intensity of the economy, and the functioning of unmanaged carbon sources and sinks on land and in oceans. Since 2000, a growing global economy, an increase in the carbon emissions required to produce each unit of economic activity, and a decreasing efficiency of carbon sinks on land and in oceans have combined to produce the most rapid 7-year increase in atmospheric CO2 since the beginning of continuous atmospheric monitoring in 1959. This is also the most rapid increase since the beginning of the industrial revolution.
We estimate that 35% of the increase in atmospheric CO2 growth rate between 1970–1999 and 2000–2006 was caused by the decrease in the efficiency of the land and ocean sinks in removing anthropogenic CO2 (18%) and by the increase in carbon intensity of the global economy (17%). The remaining 65% was due to the increase in the global economy.

The longer we delay, the deeper we will have to cut emissions to stabilize concentrations, especially because the carbon sinks are saturating.

The study’s lead author, Dr Pep Canadell, executive director of the Global Carbon Project, explained “Fifty years ago, for every tonne of CO2 emitted, 600kg were removed by natural sinks. In 2006 only 550kg were removed per tonne and that amount is falling.”

The authors, from the Global Carbon Project, have put online a great PPT presentation here. Kudos to the GCP for their work.

Friday, October 26, 2007

University of Arizona research to improve drought monitoring

University of Arizona News: A young faculty member in The University of Arizona atmospheric sciences department will help Arizona gauge drought in the context of past climate with a grant awarded by the University's Arizona Water Sustainability Program.

"The goal is to monitor drought retrospectively," Assistant Professor Christopher L. Castro said. "We'll use climate records, such as records on precipitation and temperature, and records from local stakeholders -- for example, agriculture and other water resource interests -- to build 'customized' drought indices. The unique thing about this focus is that we'll analyze different time scales of drought, which is important depending on who you are."

Castro's grant, and several other projects recently funded by the Arizona Water Sustainability Program, comes from the Technology and Research Initiative Fund, known as TRIF. TRIF is supported by Proposition 301, an initiative that Arizona voters passed in 2000 to funnel taxes directly into the state's schools and universities in the areas of optics, biotechnology, information technology and water. The 2007-2008 water sustainability projects are listed online at

Recent multiyear drought has heightened government concern about possible water shortages, especially in rural areas, Castro said. "Arizona is a very arid state, and also a very fast-growing state, so it is uniquely vulnerable to weather and climate extremes. This project aims to evaluate short- and long-term drought indicators and relate them to quantifiable impacts that affect strategic decisions by Arizona stakeholders."

Castro's "Arizona Drought Monitoring Sensitivity and Verification Analyses" project is designed to validate and improve Arizona's status reporting system, provide drought information to guide water policymakers, and complete the first step toward developing regional drought prediction capability.

....His research at the UA focuses on understanding the physical dynamics of summer climate in the U.S. Southwest and developing models for improved regional climate prediction. "There is such a critical need in this state to come up with improved forecasts on seasonal time scales for various stakeholders who depend on climate information," Castro said. "In terms of climate-change projection, there are a lot of scary scenarios that have been published in the literature regarding what's going to happen with Arizona's climate in the future. But those predictions are based on coarse-resolution general circulation models, which can't even simulate some basic processes of Arizona climate, for example, the summer monsoon," he said...

Much of the US could see a water shortage

Climate Ark, via AP: An epic drought in Georgia threatens the water supply for millions. Florida doesn't have nearly enough water for its expected population boom. The Great Lakes are shrinking. Upstate New York's reservoirs have dropped to record lows. And in the West, the Sierra Nevada snowpack is melting faster each year. Across America, the picture is critically clear — the nation's freshwater supplies can no longer quench its thirst.

The government projects that at least 36 states will face water shortages within five years because of a combination of rising temperatures, drought, population growth, urban sprawl, waste and excess. "Is it a crisis? If we don't do some decent water planning, it could be," said Jack Hoffbuhr, executive director of the Denver-based American Water Works Association.

Water managers will need to take bold steps to keep taps flowing, including conservation, recycling, desalination and stricter controls on development. "We've hit a remarkable moment," said Barry Nelson, a senior policy analyst with the Natural Resources Defense Council. "The last century was the century of water engineering. The next century is going to have to be the century of water efficiency."

The price tag for ensuring a reliable water supply could be staggering. Experts estimate that just upgrading pipes to handle new supplies could cost the nation $300 billion over 30 years. "Unfortunately, there's just not going to be any more cheap water," said Randy Brown, Pompano Beach's utilities director.

It's not just America's problem — it's global. Australia is in the midst of a 30-year dry spell, and population growth in urban centers of sub-Saharan Africa is straining resources. Asia has 60 percent of the world's population, but only about 30 percent of its freshwater. The Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, a United Nations network of scientists, said this year that by 2050 up to 2 billion people worldwide could be facing major water shortages.

…"The need to reduce water waste and inefficiency is greater now than ever before," said Benjamin Grumbles, assistant administrator for water at the Environmental Protection Agency. "Water efficiency is the wave of the future."

Hansen says drought, flooding threaten Texas

Houston Chronicle: A top climate scientist warned Wednesday that Texas faces a dual threat from floods and drought if global warming is left unchecked. James Hansen, in Houston to speak before the Progressive Forum on Wednesday night, said predictions made two decades ago about the effects of a warming world are now beginning to come true.

"Texas is in the line of fire for double-barreled climate impacts," said Hansen, who heads the NASA Goddard Institute for Space Studies. "What we said in the 1980s, and is beginning to come true now, is that both ends of the hydrological cycle get intensified by global warming."

...Hansen declined to blame global warming directly for recent disasters, such as the present wildfires in Southern California or hurricanes Katrina, Rita and Wilma in 2005. "There is a connection only in a statistical sense," he said. "You can't attribute individual events to global warming, but you can look at the statistics. We expect more droughts and fires with global warming. "And another thing, physics tells us that storms which are driven by latent heat will tend to get stronger, will tend to have more extreme events. Storms driven by latent heat include thunderstorms, tornadoes and tropical storms."

Good news-bad news on soil: erosion not contributing to global warming, but soil not serving as carbon sink

Terra Daily: Agricultural soil erosion is not a source of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere, according to research published online today (25 October) in Science. …The researchers developed a new method to establish the net effect of erosion on exchanges of carbon between the soil and the atmosphere.

They found that in landscapes subject to soil erosion, erosion acts like a conveyor belt, excavating subsoil, passing it through surface soils and burying it in hill-slope hollows. During its journey, the soil absorbs carbon from plant material and this becomes buried within the soil in depositional areas. Erosion, therefore, leads to more carbon being removed from the atmosphere than is emitted, creating what can be described as a 'sink' of atmospheric carbon.

The team found that these sinks of CO2 represent the equivalent of around 1.5% of annual fossil fuel emissions. This finding challenges previous assessments that erosion represents an additional source of carbon to the atmosphere equivalent to adding 13% to annual fossil fuel emissions. The finding also challenges the opposite notion that erosion is currently offsetting fossil fuel emissions by more than 10%.

Dr Kristof Van Oost of the Katholieke Universiteit Leuven said: "There is an on-going debate on the link between agricultural soil erosion and the carbon cycle. Academics on one side have argued that soil erosion causes considerable levels of carbon emissions and on the other that erosion is actually offsetting fossil fuel emissions. Our research clearly shows that neither of these is the case."

This new insight into the effect of erosion on the carbon cycle is essential for sound management of agricultural soils. If previous assessments that erosion causes a high level of carbon emissions to the atmosphere had been correct, then erosion control could have been used to offset fossil fuel emissions. If the assessment that erosion created a very large sink of atmospheric carbon had been correct then the environmental benefits of erosion control would have had to be set against the loss of the sink.

"Our results show that erosion control should be pursued for its environmental and agronomic benefits but should not be used to offset fossil fuel emissions," said Professor Tim Quine of the University of Exeter. "Soil erosion is not the silver bullet for offsetting the ever-increasing emission of CO2 to the atmosphere."…

California wildfires: climate change or not?

New Scientist Environment blog: When it comes to disasters, no one does it better than California. So writes The Times of London in a poke at the massages, acupuncture, stress counselling, and lattes offered to wildfire refugees in San Diego's Qualcomm Stadium this week.

The article makes an excellent point in contrasting the care offered during natural disasters along southern California's gold coast with one of the poorest parts of the country – any "massages" in the New Orleans' Superdome after Hurricane Katrina's devastation were likely taken at gunpoint.

The winds have "turned a corner" now, but the bodies are emerging from the catastrophe which saw an exodus of up to 1 million people fleeing their homes.

On the environmental side, the Knight Science Journalism Tracker has a nice roundup on the Santa Anas: the incredibly hot, dry winds directly responsible for this and prior wildfires. Basically, desert winds barrel towards the coast in the autumn and winter, when high pressure systems further inland butt up against low-pressure zones closer to the Pacific.

NASA has been flying an unmanned drone over the entire region for the past few days and has some astonishing photos of the smoke blowing straight out to sea.

Yet what I found most interesting about the coverage of the fires is the battle brewing over whether or not climate change was responsible for fuelling the flames.

Researchers from Oregon State University explained on Wednesday how they believe increasingly catastrophic fires are a direct result of a warming climate. They argue that climate change brings cycles of warm, wet weather, followed by prolonged droughts. The former increase the fuel load by allowing lots of thick vegetation to grow. The latter cause it to dry up like a tinderbox ready to explode.

But the LA Times came back a day later saying it just isn't so. They argue – through a pair of studies in Science – that while climate change has already made some areas hotter and drier, this hasn't happened, at least not yet, in Southern California.

Finally, weighed in with a laundry list of environmental groups crying climate change and urged them to reel in some of their spin before they end up looking like their science debunking opponents.

Phil McKenna, contributor

Thursday, October 25, 2007

Africa: Farmers need a financial umbrella says World Bank

AllAfrica: Helping small-scale farmers in Africa cope with risks such as natural disasters, extreme weather events and price fluctuations should be a priority, according to agricultural experts and the World Bank's annual report, released last week.

Exposure to these "uninsured risks ... has high efficiency and welfare costs for rural households" said the World Development Report 2008: Agriculture for Development, the bank's first analysis of agriculture since 1982. "Selling assets to survive shocks can have high long-term costs ... [distress sales of land and livestock] creates irreversibilities or slow recovery in the ownership of agricultural assets."

….The World Bank report urges greater investment in agriculture, pointing out that GDP growth originating in agriculture is about four times more effective in reducing poverty in Africa than growth in any other sector. Yet public spending on farming constitutes only four percent of total government spending and the sector is still taxed at relatively high levels. "But where is the investment going to come from?" asked James Breen, an agronomist based in Southern Africa.

…The World Bank report acknowledged that, in spite of multiple initiatives, "little progress has been made in reducing uninsured risks in smallholder agriculture" and insurance schemes run by governments had proven "largely ineffective".

"Index-based insurance for drought risk, now being scaled up by private initiatives in India and elsewhere, can reduce risks to borrowers and lenders and unlock agricultural finance. However, these initiatives are unlikely to reach a critical mass unless there is some element of subsidy, at the very least to cover start-up costs." Weather-based index insurance, for instance, links insurance to historical weather data on rainfall or temperature, with payouts triggered by the effects of a difference in these during the current growing season. It does not require on-farm inspections, loss assessments or collateral….

…The World Bank report noted that sharply increased investment was "especially urgent" in sub-Saharan Africa, "where food imports are predicted to more than double by 2030 under a business-as-usual scenario, the impact of climate change is expected to be large with little capacity to cope, and progress continues to be slow in raising per capita food availability".

Most experts agree that emphasis on adaptation is key at this stage. "Indeed, adaptation is at the heart of agricultural growth, even when climate change is not as rapid as projected; technology and institutions are continually adapting to changes in economic environments," said Alderman, of the World Bank. "Similarly, even with no major changes in crop varieties, research is always responding to changes in the diseases that affect plants."

…Henri Josserand, chief of the FAO's Global Information and Early Warning Service, said, "If climate change induces greater volatility and unpredictability in weather patterns, African producers will need to rely on a wider and more adaptive range of both 'regular' and coping, or adaptive, strategies….

Bangladesh rainfall variability: Impact of climate change?

Daily Star (Bangladesh), by Dr. Rashed Chowdhury: The Ganges-Brahmaputra-Meghna (henceforth, GBM) river system is the third largest freshwater outfall to the world's oceans. The Ganges and the Brahmaputra fall in a number of countries in the South Asian region, including China, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh. Of these China contributes solely to the flow of the Brahmaputra, and Nepal to the flow of the Ganges. These two rivers often overflow during the monsoon months, and the flow reduces dramatically in the dry season. The region therefore faces two major hazards: floods during the monsoon and scarcity of water during the dry season. These hazards become more pronounced in the downstream regions particularly in Bangladesh.

Increasing population and accelerating economic development activities in the basin of the Ganges and the Brahmaputra river system have now made the sustainable water management of the region even more critical than in the past. The sharing of water resources has long been a matter of dispute among the four co-basin countries. …The situation is particularly critical for Bangladesh as about 80 percent of its annual fresh water supply comes as transboundary inflows through 54 common rivers with India.

The effects of climate on hydrology in Tropical Asia would have many facets. In the Himalayas, the storage of precipitation in the form of snow and ice (in glaciers) over a long period provides a large water reservoir that regulates annual water distribution. The majority of rivers originating in the Himalayas have their upper catchments in snow-covered areas and flow through steep mountains. If there is any climatic variability in the Himalayas the impacts could be felt in the downstream countries -- that is, India and Bangladesh. By and large, dry-season flow in the major Himalayan rivers in a given year results from the monsoon rainfall of the previous year. If there is any climatic change in the mountain hydrological regimes, it is likely to alter these resources, and severely affect Bangladesh that depends on this water resource….

EU environment chief opposes two genetically modified maizes

Reuters: The European Union's environment chief is proposing that two types of genetically modified (GMO) maize not be authorized for cultivation in the bloc, setting up a clash within the 27-member EU executive body. The maize types in question are Syngenta's Bt-11 and the 1507 maize developed jointly by Pioneer Hi-Bred International, a subsidiary of DuPont Co, and Dow AgroSciences unit Mycogen Seeds, according to documents seen by Reuters on Thursday.

But the other members of the European Commission oppose the position of Environment Commissioner Stavros Dimas, sources familiar with the situation said, implying the rejection may not take effect. One EU source said all 26 other members of the EU executive body were against Dimas' proposal. Dimas's draft decisions cite too much uncertainty that growing the crops would hurt the environment.

"The possible existence of delayed or long-term effects on the environment and biodiversity which may not be observed during the period of the release of the GMO but become apparent at a later stage are still unknown," the draft document laying out a decision on Pioneer's 1507 maize said.

"It is assessed that the degree of uncertainty attached to the results of the evaluation of the available scientific information is high, and that ... the level of risk generated by the cultivation of this product for the environment is unacceptable." A spokeswoman for Dimas declined to comment.

Environmental pressure groups Greenpeace and Friends of the Earth Europe welcomed Dimas's stance. They said in a statement that the two types of maize, which are insect-resistant, "may also be toxic to certain butterfly species, affect other beneficial insects and have long term effects on soil health."

Pioneer rejected the environmental concerns, citing an assessment by the European Food Safety Authority (EFSA) that the products were safe. It said in a statement on Thursday that failing to approve the product "appears contrary to the EU's own philosophy of freedom of choice and competition in the marketplace." The company filed a lawsuit in May against the Commission over its alleged delay in submitting the company's application for EU approval of the 1507 maize.

The biotech industry, which insists that its products are as safe as non-GMO equivalents, has long vented frustration over what it sees as the EU's delay in approving GMOs. EuropaBio, an association for the European industry, said Dimas's move would hurt EU farmers. "This would have a serious impact on the competitiveness of our farmers, the European agricultural industry and the whole food and feed chain," it said in a statement.

Probing the roots of catastrophe

Plenty: When a natural disaster occurs, like Hurricane Katrina in 2005 or the wildfires currently burning huge swaths of Southern California, the press has a duty to examine the underlying causes. Failing to dig into the “why” of a situation doesn't just mean forgetting one of the more important of the five journalistic "W"s; it’s also an invitation to leave the problem unresolved, ultimately inviting its repetition.

In the case of the fires raging right now along the California coast, a pretty convincing case already exists that global warming has contributed to the dry conditions that produced unprecedented "megafires" across the West. In a fascinating and timely 60 Minutes segment this Sunday, reporter Scott Pelley visited firefighting operations in the West to investigate the role climate change was playing in the increasing number and severity of wildfires.

"You know, there are a lot of people who don't believe in climate change," Pelley says at one point in the segment. "You won't find them on the fire line in the American West anymore," replies Tom Boatner, the nation's chief of fire operations. "We've had climate change beat into us over the last ten or 15 years. We know what we're seeing, and we're dealing with a period of climate, in terms of temperature and humidity and drought that's different than anything people have seen in our lifetime."

And 60 Minutes wasn't alone in calling out the connection. In fact, the media has been reporting on the subject for years at this point. But still, some reporters are missing the story. The Washington Times, for example, chose to lead their story by facetiously wondering whether it wasn't really Hollywood's loose morals that had brought on the flames rather than global warming. The New York Times ran a piece explaining the dry winds that fanned the flames, but made no mention of any underlying climactic causes. And in an otherwise excellent story, the Washington Post noted that this was the driest year on record, but failed to probe just why that might be so.

There's no question that the immediacy of a disaster and the subtlety of the environmental forces at play can often excuse a lack of deeper reporting. But at this point, the fires have been burning for days – an eternity in the contemporary 24-hour news cycle – and journalists have a responsibility to fill some of that airtime covering the possibility that climate change is contributing to some catastrophes. Only by doing so will the large, abstract phenomenon of global warming have any relevance to the average person, and only then will steps be taken to address that problem. Here's hoping the topic gets some more attention once these fires burn out – and before the next ones flare up.

Senator Boxer seeks answers on redacted CDC testimony

Washington Post: Bush administration officials acknowledged yesterday that they heavily edited testimony on global warming, delivered to Congress on Tuesday by the director of the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, after the president's top science adviser and other officials questioned its scientific basis.

Senate Democrats say they want to investigate the circumstances involved in the editing of CDC Director Julie L. Gerberding's written testimony to the Senate Environment and Public Works Committee on "climate change and public health." Gerberding testimony shrank from 12 pages to six after it was reviewed by the Office of Management and Budget.

The OMB removed several sections of the testimony that detailed how global warming would affect Americans, according to White House spokeswoman Dana Perino, because John H. Marburger III, who directs the Office of Science and Technology Policy, and his staff questioned whether Gerberding's statements matched those released this year by the U.N. Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change.

"As I understand it, in the draft there was broad characterizations about climate change science that didn't align with the IPCC," Perino told reporters yesterday. "When you try to summarize what is a very complicated issue and you have many different experts who have a lot of opinions, and you get testimony less than 24 hours before it's going to be given, you -- scientists across the administration were taking a look at it, and there were a decision that she would focus where she is an expert, which is on CDC."

White House officials eliminated several successive pages of Gerberding's testimony, beginning with a section in which she planned to say that many organizations are working to address climate change but that, "despite this extensive activity, the public health effects of climate change remain largely unaddressed," and that the "CDC considers climate change a serious public concern."

In another deleted part of her original testimony, the CDC director predicted that areas in the northern United States "will likely bear the brunt of increases in ground-level ozone and associated airborne pollutants. Populations in mid-western and northeastern cities are expected to experience more heat-related illnesses as heat waves increase in frequency, severity and duration."...

Wednesday, October 24, 2007

Climate threat to biodiversity

Earth viewed from space
The last mass extinction wiped out one-fifth of life on Earth
Global temperatures predicted for the coming centuries
could trigger a mass extinction, UK scientists have warned.
The temperatures are within the range of greenhouse phases early in the Earth's history when up to 95% of plants and animals died out, they say.

Experts examined the link between climate and diversity over 520 million years, almost the entire fossil record. They found that global diversity is high during cool (icehouse) periods and low during warm (greenhouse) phases.

"Our results provide the first clear evidence that global climate may explain substantial variation in the fossil record in a simple and consistent manner," said Dr Peter Mayhew, one of the paper's co-authors.

"If our results hold for current warming, the magnitude of which is comparable with the long-term fluctuations in the Earth's climate, they suggest that extinctions will increase." The study by researchers from the Universites of York and Leeds, published in Proceedings of the Royal Society B, compared data sets on marine and land diversity against estimates of sea surface temperatures for the same period.

They found that four out of the five mass extinction events on Earth are associated with greenhouse phases (warmer, wetter conditions) rather than icehouse phases (cold, dry conditions). These include Earth's worst mass extinction 251 million years ago when some 95% of all species were lost. "We could - at worst - be experiencing that in the next century - only a few human generations down the line," Dr Mayhew told BBC News. "We need to know why temperatures and extinctions are linked in this way."

Wanted: climate disaster rapid response

Gristmill: As Matt Stoller pointed out at Open Left, environmental groups haven't been very quick off the mark in responding to the California wildfires and framing them as a climate disaster. Whether it's Katrina, Rita, the 2003 wildfires, 2004 Florida hurricanes, or any of the numerous other climate disasters of recent years, environmental groups have been slow. It's true that you can't tie any particular climate disaster directly to global warming -- but it's easy enough to acknowledge that and then talk about how these kinds of disasters will become more frequent and more intense as the climate crisis worsens ... and then turn the conversation to solutions.

California fires
(photo: Kevin Labianco, Flickr)

Mostly, environmentalists have been timid because they're afraid right wingers will accuse them of "exploiting" the tragedies, but environmental groups shouldn't decide what to say or not say on the basis of a few fringe anti-environmentalists. Framing these events as climate disasters directs the conversation and forces the media to address the question, rather than continuing with the "Mother Nature strikes again" stories they usually run. If we let the right wing define what we say, we'll be 100 percent mute, 100 percent of the time. It's kind of a ridiculous strategy.

You've got to talk when people are paying attention. It's nice to release thoughtful, hard-hitting reports about how the climate is increasing the likelihood of wildfires during the rainy season. But it really doesn't matter if no one cares when the report is released. You've got to drive the point home while people actually care about wildfires (same true for hurricanes, droughts, etc.).

Let me give an example. In 2003, I was working on forest protection. Then, as now, some environmental groups didn't want to say that either the climate crisis or logging of fire-resistant old growth trees was contributing to the massive burns, even though they had put out loads of reports about it. Why not? They were scared they'd be accused of exploiting tragedies.

But for some reason, the right wing had no similar fears. They blamed the fires on environmentalists, saying that environmentalists had prevented thinning of low-diameter trees. The environmental community was so scared by that line of argument that the environmental messaging was, "Yes, we need tree thinning -- just not deep in the forest." Not surprisingly, few members of Congress and few members of the public remembered the distinction. The result: passage of Bush's Orwellian Healthy Forests Initiative, which actually subsidizes the logging of fire-resistant old growth trees.

Here's the solution, and it's something the environmental movement has to start creating right away: a Climate Disaster Rapid Response Team. When disaster strikes, environmentalists should be the first on the scene delivering aid in coordination with the Red Cross and other disaster relief agencies. It probably means having relief supplies around the country ready to go in the event of a disaster, and volunteers signed up in advance to drop everything and help with relief. And it means having a crack communications team ready to hook up media with both top environmental spokespeople and climate experts. The media will lap it up, and drown out whatever right wing sniping occurs.

It's important to remember that the right responds like this whenever disaster strikes. They're right to do it: that's when people are looking for solutions. After September 11, while the left was generally cowed into submission, Republicans rallied support around everything from the Patriot Act to tax cuts and the war in Iraq. They've blamed the drought in Georgia on environmentalists for mandating water-flows to save downstream fish (ignoring the fact that Georgia officials had allowed amusement-park snow-making and more sprawl than the water supply could take).

If environmentalists want to be effective at shaping the debate in moments of crisis, they're going to have put aside their temerity and start talking when people are actually listening.

UPDATE: Wanted to give some credit to environmentalists/groups who jumped on the fires. We still need a more comprehensive and organized effort like the one described above, but these statements are good first steps! This is far from an exhaustive list: LCV's Gene Karpinski, Friends of the Earth's Brent Blackwelder, Al Gore, the Sierra Club's Carl Pope, and NRDC.